Do you talk to your characters? Should you?
If you’re going to write a truly believable novel, then you need to know your characters to the core of their souls. And the best way to get to their core is to ask them three simple questions.
Leon Surmelian in his book (written forty years ago) Techniques of Fiction Writing, has this to say about creating characters in fiction:
“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out, and this is necessarily so because the human personality remains a mystery, subject to obscure forces; it is a universe it itself, and we are strangers even to ourselves. Characterization requires self-knowledge, insight into human nature . . . it is more than impersonation.”
Getting Real Doesn’t Happen on Its Own
That quote contains some terrific stuff. Too many characters are just that—impersonations of real people.
In order to create real characters, you have to become somewhat of a psychologist and learn about human nature. Suffice it to say, most of the novels I edit and critique fall way short on creating real characters. And I don’t think it’s only due to not spending enough time working on them. I sense that some of my clients spend a whole lot of time thinking about their characters, but their creations still come across flat and stereotyped.
It may have something to do with laziness and not wanting to work too hard to create each character. It may be that the writer doesn’t think characters have to be all that developed—that as the plot unfolds, the character will just “come into his own” and become real. I’m thinking, though, the real reason is the writer hasn’t gone deep into herself and examined why she is who she is.
I’m not suggesting we all go into therapy for a while or spend years psychoanalyzing ourselves (although some of us—writers especially—might benefit from that). But if we do some digging inside, we’ll find there are certain truths about why we are the way we are. And the first idea I’d like to throw out at you is tied in with persona and true essence. Basically, we all present a face to the world—a face we feel will help us survive—which is not wholly who we are. Some people may really live in that place of “true essence” and that’s great. But populating a novel with characters like that just give us “happy people in happy land.” We’re more interested in flawed characters, and I bet, if you’re like me, there are some serious flaws lingering under the surface.
Getting to Know You
So, I’m going to share one technique I use when I sit down to create my characters.
I already at this point have my characters in mind. I know my plot and premise, and I either may already have a lot of the story worked out, or I might have only a germ of an idea. It doesn’t matter. But at some point I will sit down (for numerous days) and spend time creating the characters that are going to be the heart and blood of my novel. This time spent is crucial to me, and I never begin writing a novel until my characters are so well fleshed out that I know pretty much everything I need to know about them. And I’m not talking about what they like to eat or what movies they watch. That stuff is inconsequential—trust me. Those little bits about character that come out in your novel are only flavoring, not meat.
Most of my novels have up to a dozen main POV characters, so every one of them must be totally real—to me. I don’t let them run off and start behaving without getting to that place first. I can’t stress enough how vital it is you do this in advance of writing your book. Some writers think it’s fine to just start writing and let the characters run amok to see what they’ll do. That’s all well and good if writing to you is a crapshoot. On the other hand, if you want to write a very specific story and convey very specific themes, this just isn’t going to work. You may be brilliant but you’re not that brilliant, okay?
The Three Most Important Questions
I write down my list of main characters on a page. Or sometimes I’ll do this on the first page of my character sketches. Then I spend some time asking my characters these three questions:
• What is your core need (and what you will do if you can’t get that need met)?
• What is your greatest fear?
• What is the incident(s) that wounded you early in life that got you believing a lie? (And just what is that lie?)
These three questions are so helpful and powerful that it’s just possible they are all you need to create each character. The last question is the most crucial and the one I spend the most time with. Each of us has been hurt in the past. Because of that hurt, two things resulted:
• One: We created a false persona to protect our heart. Like the girl who is abandoned by her father when she was young and now can’t get close to men or stay in a relationship long. If you look at yourself, you will find something in there like this. Somewhere in your past you got hurt, and so you’ve formed a persona to survive in the world.
• Two: That hurt makes us believe a lie about ourselves and the world. In this example the lie this girl believes is that all men walk out and always will. That she can’t trust men or give her heart to them. And that’s why her whole life she’s kept her distance. That’s the outward lie. The other side to that lie turns inward (and you need to look at both parts—they are two sides of the same coin). That part says something about yourself. With this example, the girl believes a lie about herself—that she’s not worthy of being loved.
Need = Fear = Lie (Repeat)
Ah, do you see that? That’s rich, deep, and powerful.
Okay, that character type is used a lot, especially in chick flicks, but I hope you can see here how we’re getting to the heart of motivation. Now, when you put this girl in various scenes, she is going to react certain ways based on the lies she’s been telling herself her whole life and the lies she believes about other people. This then ties in with her greatest fear (fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment) and her core need, which is . . . have you guessed it? See the connection? Her core need is to get the very thing she believes is impossible because of the lies she believes. She wants more than anything to be loved, but she can’t get there. She’s blocking her own way.
Hopefully, these three questions will grow in you to where they are the first and foremost things you ask your characters. They speak to the core of motivation, and that’s where you’ll find the heart and believability in the characters you create. So talk to them, and let them reveal themselves. You’ll find your characters will be compelling, complex, and most importantly—human.
C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the seven-book fantasy series “The Gates of Heaven.” She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, including her Zondervan contest winner Someone to Blame. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach the craft of writing. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life: www.LiveWriteThrive.com and www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com.
You can read more about her and her books at www.cslakin.com.
Follow @cslakin and @livewritethrive. Facebook: C. S. Lakin, Author, Editor.